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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day 10

In-depth
18 Jun 2021
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As if the hills of Snowdonia weren’t hard enough, Cyclist decides to take a detour to a unique climb on Day 10 of our ride across Britain

WordsMarcus Leach PhotographyGavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

‘Keep them legs turning:, the worst is still ahead,’ comes the laconic warning from the farmer leaning on his stick. It’s a surprise to see anyone standing beside this road, given how remote it is, but the words are not encouraging.

Twice already I’ve been convinced I’m at the summit of the climb only for hidden sweeps of taunting tarmac to reveal themselves, extinguishing my advancing optimism. I puff past the farmer without responding, my face contorted with pain.

This is now Day Ten of my ride from one end of the country to the other, and in the past 100km I have racked up more than 3,000m of ascent, every metre of which I can now feel in my legs as I grind upwards into the hills of central Wales.

With the discomfort comes the recrimination – a bitter reminder that I wouldn’t be feeling this bad had I not foolishly decided to extend today’s ride with a side-trip to another climb that could easily have been avoided, but which I thought would be fun. When will I ever learn? 

20-20 hindsight

Maps, as travel writer Rosita Forbes once said, have a certain charm and magic in their ability to lead you to believe anything is possible, without revealing the toil and sweat of the road ahead.

In the days before beginning my ride across the UK, I spent considerable time deliberating over komoot, and eventually I gave in to the temptation to ‘quickly nip up Stwlan Dam’, one of the most picture-perfect climbs on our fair shores, despite knowing it to be a dead-end road that averages close to 10% for the best part of 3km, with maximum ramps over 16%.

‘This is the scenic route, after all,’ was the thought in my head at the time of planning the route. By the time I’ve slung my bike over the padlocked gate at the bottom of the climb and tackled the first few hundred metres, that thought has been replaced by, ‘You ******* idiot.’

Today’s ride is 178km from North Wales to central Wales. To get to the base of the Stwlan Dam climb has been a 16km warm-up from Betws-y-Coed, taking me past Dolwyddelan Castle, perched atop a craggy outcrop and set against the domineering mountains of Snowdonia National Park.

I rise upwards through mountains ripped open by vast machines, their innards laid bare in a series of giant grey scars. It’s a reminder of an industry that once thrived in this region to such an extent that the slate mine in Blaenau Ffestiniog was the largest in the world. The machines have long gone but the road remains, snaking up between the immense screes of broken slate that spill back down the mountainside.

What the Stwlan ascent lacks in length it more than makes up for in dramatic scenery, cruel gradients and a collection of switchbacks that are reminiscent of some of Europe’s most revered cols. My heart rate rises as quickly as the road over the first kilometre, the gradient never below 12%, and I soon realise that my ‘nipping up Stwlan Dam’ will be anything but quick. Such is the draining effect of the opening kilometre that even the almost flat section in the middle of the climb feels like pedalling through treacle.

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Back onto sterner gradients the monolithic arches of the dam loom over me as walls of exposed, gnarled rock shepherd me around every corner. It’s hard not to imagine the way being packed with fervent fans parting at the last moment to allow my safe passage through a tunnel of noise and colour as I strain every muscle in a bid to reach the top first.

Spurred on by my imagination I ride out of the saddle, every corner I sweep around bringing a different flashback to climbs I’ve conquered in Europe, until the road ends abruptly at another gate.

I have no choice but to turn and freewheel back down the eight switchbacks, somewhat saddened that the climb has ended just as I was beginning to really enjoy it. Any lingering disappointment is quickly forgotten when I find myself on an isolated slither of road lined by oak trees, squirrels dashing erratically in front of my wheels and the ripple of running water over rocks from an adjacent brook.

This fleeting moment of tranquillity is at odds with what lies ahead but is to be savoured nonetheless, a welcome break for both legs and mind.

Into the Welsh wilds

Soon enough the road starts to head up again. It does so consistently for 20km, snaking lazily deeper and deeper into a remote wilderness, seemingly void of human life apart from the occasional farm nestled in the folds of the mountains, with distant sheep appearing like little balls of cotton wool on the hills of green.

Eventually the route swings east towards Llyn Tegid lake and I find myself descending again on a deserted single-lane road. It would be a fast run, but my speed is tempered by a series of gates that block the road, each one requiring me to stop and open it before pulling it shut behind me. It ensures there’s no fluidity to my descent.

It does at least allow for some respite before the next climb, which is by far the steepest of the day. Little more than an old farmers’ track, the 25% gradient stings my legs and lungs in equal measure as I fight my way up, a small flock of unflustered sheep waiting until the last moment before begrudgingly moving out of my way. The brow of the hill reveals a hitherto hidden sea of pine trees stretching back down into the valley on the other side, through which weaves a thin ribbon of tarmac.

Littered with loose gravel and patches of damp moss, the descent is a treacherous one and a test of skill to stay upright, one I come dangerously close to failing. On one corner I catch a patch of moss, my back wheel sliding from under me, my heart suddenly in my mouth as I prepare to hit the deck.

I somehow manage to save the situation, more through luck than anything else, and once my heart rate has calmed from the shock I am content to freewheel cautiously the remainder of the way down.

On the road goes, thankfully in a better state than on the descent, to Machynlleth, the ancient capital of Wales, and the edge of the Cambrian Mountains. I resist the urge to stop for coffee, a decision I’ll come to rue a few kilometres down the road when faced with the first of several short sections hitting 15%.

I thought I knew this little corner of Wales reasonably well, although evidently not, as here I am on a climb I haven’t even heard of, let alone ridden. Or maybe I have heard of it and have subconsciously been avoiding it on account of it being so tortuous.

One man and his slog

Pushing thoughts of coffee out of my mind I grind on, unable to settle into any sort of rhythm due to a combination of the steep pitches and being entirely the wrong build for such a climb. I ignore a sign warning that the road ahead is closed due to ice and snow, even if a part of me is tempted to look for an alternative route.

That is until I remind myself there are no flat roads in mid-Wales. It’s either up or down, the only difference being in the severity of the gradients. I reason that in this instance a known hell – I can see the road ahead rising steeper still – is better than the potential of unknown heavens in the form of shallower inclines. At least the climb will be over soon, I tell myself.

Instead, as I round the corner, expecting to roll over the summit, another long stretch reveals itself, at which point I notice a lone figure standing by the side of the road  ahead. As I draw closer he comes into focus, dressed in tattered old clothes, a face creased with wrinkles, leaning on a sturdy stick and looking somewhat vacant.

He watches me as I labour towards him, waiting till I am alongside before offering his warnings of tougher sections still to come. I ride on, wondering what he was doing in the middle of nowhere. No doubt he was thinking something similar about me.

My suffering is finally, mercifully, brought to an end. There’s no more vertiginous road lurking around the corner, just a beautiful valley falling away from me. My eyes feast on the road unfurling below in much the same way as the occasionally red kites I see flying above me eye up their prey. It invites me to throw caution to the wind and attack as if chasing some imaginary victory once more.

My speed rises effortlessly to 90kmh, the rushing wind snatching away my child-like whoops of joy as I hurtle down towards the valley floor. The thrill is momentarily curtailed by a brutish section of uphill that reduces me to walking pace in a matter of metres.

I scramble frantically through the gears, desperate to avoid the ignominy of having to get off and push or worse still finding myself on my back in a ditch for the lack of momentum. My legs find a rhythm in the nick of time to propel me over the ridge and back into freefall as the road once more drops away, the scenery passing by in a blur of greens and browns.

And… rest

Even coming off the back of a rest day I begin to feel drained, inescapable waves of tiredness washing over me with an increasing regularity, the constant undulating nature of the day taking its toll. It’s hard not to drift off into daydreams of reaching Cornwall. For the first time it seems close enough to contemplate what it will feel like to arrive at Land’s End.

I can ill afford to let my mind wander too far, for there’s still a good hour of riding ahead before I reach my finish point in Disserth. The road rolls up and down relentlessly, never allowing me to gain enough momentum on the downhills to coast back over the rises, cruelly forcing me to pedal with tired, aching legs.

When the end does finally come it’s all I can do to unclip, collapse into a heap outside the motorhome and let my children jump on top of me, much to their delight. My body is regretting my side trip up to the Stwlan Dam, but now the day is over I’m happy I made the extra effort.

• Fancy completing one of the greatest cycling challenges of the British Isles? Check out the Cyclist Tour Finder for bucket list guided tours including the classic LEJOGgravel riding in Scotland, or road cycling in the Yorkshire Dales

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No internet? No problem. Download komoot map regions while at home so you have them on your phone ready to use when out on the ride without any concerns about phone signal and data. 

Essential JOGLE kit


No10: Bailey of Bristol Autograph 74-4 motorhome, £62,999, baileyofbristol.co.uk

The Autograph 74-4 motorhome is the perfect vehicle for such an ambitious undertaking as our JOGLE ride, especially off the back of lockdown and in a continuing pandemic. It not only gave us a safe, self-contained bubble in which to travel, eat, wash and sleep, but it meant that no matter where a stage ended we had a base for the night.

With enough space for a family of four, this model includes driver’s and passenger seats that rotate to become part of a lounge/dining area, which can also become a double bed. There’s a permanent bed at the other end of the motorhome, along with a bathroom, fitted kitchen and a remarkable amount of storage space. Plus it’s all done out with plush carpets and stylish woodwork.

Towards the end of a hard day on the bike, the Autograph 74-4 was bit of luxury that I never ceased to look forward to.

Thanks

Riding from one end of Britain to the other is a major undertaking, and Cyclist had help from a number of sources.

Firstly, thanks to komoot for help with creating a route that takes in many of the best parts of the country for riding a bike.

As the ride took place during the period just after Covid-19 lockdown, we couldn’t use hotels or B&Bs, so many thanks to Bailey of Bristol (baileyofbristol.co.uk) for the loan of an Autograph 74-4 motorhome, which proved to be an excellent moving base for the trip.

Thanks also to Mercedes (mercedes-benz.co.uk) for the loan of a Marco Polo campervan, as used by our photographer for the duration of the ride.

Good kit choices are vital on a challenge such as this to avoid unneccesary stops, and I couldn’t have asked for better than the Factor O2 Disc bike (factorbikes.co.uk), Castelli clothing (saddleback.co.uk), Giro helmet and shoes (zyrofisher.co.uk), Sungod eyewear (sungod.co), Wahoo Roam bike computer (wahoofitness.com), Garmin Vector 3 Power Pedals (garmin.com) and Supernova lights (supernova-lights.com).

Nutrition was supplied by Named Sport (namedsport.com) and post-ride recovery came courtesy of Reboots (reboots.de). Thanks also to Hutchinson (windwave.co.uk) for the spare tyres and inner tubes in case of blowouts, and to Ribble for the loan of the e-bike, which allowed our photographer to keep up on the hills when the going got too tough for the campervan.

Finally, thanks to my wife and kids, who proved to be the perfect support crew.